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Restaurants in the Time of Coronavirus: A Chronicle (I)

Restaurants in the Time of Coronavirus: A Chronicle (I)

Chicago, Culture, Featured Chef Interviews, Food & People, Homepage Featured, Homepage Featured, Must-Read Features, Washington D.C.

First came the cries from across the world. Here in America, we listened but never thought to grapple with the idea that we might soon follow suit. After all, we are the land of the brave, the untouchable, the resilient.

Then came the warnings. Those who saw the writing on the walls were among the first to prepare for large-scale shut downs. Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, and Danny Meyer made waves as their temporary closures rippled across the industry to smaller chef/owners who began grappling with their choices, or lack thereof. For many, a temporary closure would end up being equivalent to a permanent one.

March 14 brought ever-growing lists of voluntary shut downs, with calls to government officials to make it a mandate. Food writers began compiling recommendations for takeout or delivery. Restaurant workers, public relations firms, and freelancers (like myself) across the nation watched in horror as our community scrambled to stay in step with the changing health recommendations and governmental rulings. By March 15, chaos reigned. New York City, Ohio, and Massachusetts all ordered shut-downs of bars and restaurants, limiting services to takeout and delivery only. The industry conversation spiraled from, “What can we do to bring customers in?” to “How are we supposed to survive?”

Overnight, hundreds of thousands of hospitality workers went from some form of employment to completely helpless. No jobs. No benefits. No pay.

For the past week, food reporters across the nation have been doing nothing short of God’s work to keep their communities of restaurants informed and supported. Disturbing statistics and pleas to the government have swept social media feeds. It’s daunting to keep up and heartbreaking to realize each number represents a life plunged into uncertainty and devastation.

Un-Plated exists because the voices that represent the backbone of America’s food and hospitality industry deserve a forum. Now, more than ever, their stories must be heard.

Monday, March 16 – Tuesday, March 17

photo provided by Reid Shilling of Shilling Canning Company in Washington DC

While restaurants scramble to adapt to the take-out and delivery only model, those that were preparing to open have limited options.

Chris Morgan and Gerald Addison, formerly of Michelin-starred Maydan in Washington DC, were preparing to host their soft opening for friends and family this week. Just three days prior, they held their first orientation for all new staff.

“We didn’t really know what to tell anyone,” Morgan says. “We were pretty honest that we weren’t sure how it was going to go.”

During orientation, Morgan and Addision made it clear to their new employees that it would not be held against them if they decided to seek employment elsewhere during these difficult times. Then came the news of the shutdowns.

The slight relief offered to restaurants by way of allowing takeout and delivery does nothing for restaurants that were preparing to open this month. On the other hand, Addison and Morgan might be able to maneuver expenses in a way that helps to keep their operations afloat until the shutdowns pass.

“There’s only so much we can do before tanking the business before it opens and then nobody gets anything. We have to balance protecting our staff and protecting our business so we can continue to operate when all this blows over.”

The effects and devastation will last much longer than two weeks.

Like most in the industry, Morgan and Addison estimate the shutdown to last in some form for about eight weeks. The negative ramifications of those weeks on businesses are immeasurable. Their rent payments are scheduled to begin on April 1st but, realistically, the two don’t know if they’ll even be able to open by June.

“Two months of burned rent on our end would be pretty devastating.”

While they grapple with how to communicate with their investors and help their staff, Morgan and Addision remain positive with deep faith in the Washington DC dining community. To cope, they plan to organize activities like outdoor runs to “give people a little break from the chaos”.

“The restaurant businesses in DC were some of the first to bounce back after previous financial crises. We’re just hoping for all of our buddies that will be the case again. I imagine it will be.”

Antonio Ferraro of two-year-old Napoli Pasta Bar in Washington DC was praying to stay open for as long as the government would allow.

“I’m from Italy, so I knew this was going to happen. I knew the timing…that it would happen this week. I hope we don’t end up like Italy. The way the government is doing things, I’m hoping that God is going to help us.”

Kwame Onwuachi from Kith/Kin is advocating for rent forgiveness so that he can better support his employees. In a recent Instagram post, Onwuachi writes, “I had to sit across from them one by one and tell them that we wouldn’t know when this pandemic would be over or when we could reopen.” Onwuachi has made the decision to not provide delivery or takeout options at this time. “I’m not going to sit on high horse and blame anyone for staying open. People are just trying to do the best they can in a horrible situation. We chose not to expose our staff to anything while on their commute or while here at the restaurant.”

Salaried staff are in the same boat as their hourly pay comrades. Most were let go and are forced to file for unemployment.

“[Leadership] felt it’s a step they had to take to keep the restaurant open past this quarantine but I don’t know if I can go back,” says Mallory Jaffe, formerly of Proxi in Chicago. “I filed for unemployment already and I can claim [my son] so that helps a bit.”

Updated communications from organizations like DC City Council state that unemployment insurance is available and the wait time is eliminated. But that says nothing of the operational dysfunctionality.

Emily Alexander, a manager at Sushi Nakazawa who was just let go on Monday, March 16, spent four hours on hold trying to get through to unemployment. “Being a manager changes the way you interact with staff. I look at them in almost a maternal way. I wanted to protect them and I couldn’t. The reality is, I couldn’t even protect myself.”

Like many, Alexander has a family to support. “In a sad way, I almost feel blessed that I have so much time to spend with [my daughter] now. I went from working 60 hours a week to spending every waking moment with her. I’m trying to look at the positive side but it comes in waves.”

The trauma is real.

Carlie Steiner, owner of Pom Pom and Dos Mami’s in DC is concerned that many don’t understand the gravity of the situation.

“It feels very apocalyptic. I’m directly being hit right now as is my entire staff and team whereas a lot of my friends are still genuinely getting paid even if they’re at home. There’s a lot of jokes about being quarantined going around and I just don’t think that a lot of people get it right now. It feels like a lot of people are not taking this seriously. I ended up snapping at a friend yesterday who told me it’s going to be okay. I just let go of 23 human beings. One day it might be okay but its absolutely not okay right now.”

Micheline Mendelsohn, CEO of Sunnyside Restaurant Group (Good Stuff Eatery; We, The Pizza; Santa Rosa Taqueria; The Butcher’s Sandwich; Big Top Ice Cream Bar) manages not just close to 100 direct employees but also 8 franchisees.

“Its very gut wrenching when you have built businesses that support 90+ people. Having worked 10 years building staff that have been with us since we’ve opened and then having to let them go because we can’t meet payroll is very, very sad.”

The decision to let staff go was made after the entire ownership and executive team of the group took 50%+ cuts in their individual salaries.

“The restaurant business is a rolling business,” Mendelsohn continues. “You don’t have a pot of money. September to January are our slowest months, so, for us, Spring is the busiest. That’s what sustains us the rest of the year. To go from really slow months where we don’t cut people because we want to sustain them and be with us during our busiest months, to roll into months where there’s zero revenue is traumatizing.

In the past 24 hours, I’ve spoken with thirty other chefs and restaurant workers, all of whom had the same message: “Right now, I’m just processing.”

In times of need, the hospitality industry has always stepped up. Now, who will step up for them?

Chefs and restaurant workers have always banded together in times of need to provide sustenance and relief. Nothing about this pandemic changes that spirit. While José Andrés’ noble task of turning some of his restaurant kitchens into community kitchens is receiving national press, dozens of local restaurants across the country are also banding together to provide food and financial relief for their fellow workers. Some, like Sunnyside Restaurant Group, are stepping up to provide free meals to children. Sweetgreen is providing free meals to hospital workers.

An anonymous restaurant worker (Anon.) in Washington DC comments, “A lot of people go out to restaurants here. When Bon Appetit named us Restaurant City of the Year or when Bad Saint won a James Beard Award, they were so happy. And yet, here we all are facing the worst we’ve ever faced and we’re all alone.”

One can only hope each day in this new order brings a complete shift in support of the restaurant industry. Perhaps restaurants will always continue to operate on razor thin margins but it’s about time the individuals that make up the industry receive more stability.

Anon. continues, “It’s grueling, hard labor. We need support not just now but always.”

I couldn’t agree more.

That’s it for today. More to come tomorrow.

If you work in the restaurant industry and have a story to share with Un-Plated, please email me—sabrina@un-plated.com. Your voice matters. 

6 Comments

  1. Brie
    March 18, 2020 at 3:41 am
    Reply

    Everyday it’s like you hear about yet another situation or person affected by this. It hadn’t even occurred to me to consider the situation soon-to-open restaurants would be in. This also made me take a hard look at how I discuss this with friends too. I would hate to come across as being cavalier about being quarantined when so many are feeling completely helpless and defeated. I think I’ve tried to put a brave face and positive spin on it but reading this made me rethink that approach. Maybe what our friends in the industry need right now is for us to take a moment with them to fully understand and appreciate the gravity of the situation. Thanks Sabrina, I’m anxious to keep reading the stories as they come in and to learn other ways of helping beyond purchasing what take-out I can.

    • Un-Plated
      March 19, 2020 at 3:54 pm

      I’m so glad this helped you think about your approach to others. It’s so easy to want to put a positive spin on things, and NECESSARY (I believe), but also to ‘read the room’ so to speak.

  2. Geri
    March 18, 2020 at 4:32 pm
    Reply

    👏👏👏great article!

    • Un-Plated
      March 19, 2020 at 3:54 pm

      Thanks GG, thinking of you all.

  3. Rita Hopper
    March 18, 2020 at 5:05 pm
    Reply

    So very heartbreaking. Thanks, Sabrina for the story. Let us know how we can help. We want to support our local restaurants. Thanks for keeping us posted.

    • Un-Plated
      March 19, 2020 at 3:55 pm

      I’ll keep it all coming as best as I can. Highly recommend keeping up with Washington City Paper, The Washington Post, and Washingtonian. Laura Hayes, Tim Carman, Jessica Sidman, and Anna Spiegal are doing some tremendous reporting to give the public resources to help locally. Check out Eater for more national initiatives.

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